While I’ve been laid up at home after foot surgery, my husband and I watched the miniseries “Sons of Liberty,” which dramatizes events leading to the American Revolution. Earlier we enjoyed “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” and next we’ll view “The Revolution” by the History Channel.
As we were waxing patriotic before the celebration of our nation’s birth, protestors in Portland draped an American flag around a George Washington statue, lit it on fire, and eventually toppled the bronze effigy of America’s first president. Protesters also tore down a Thomas Jefferson statue outside the city’s Jefferson High School.
And last week University of Portland officials removed a bronze statue of York from the Captain William Clark Monument on campus. York, who was Clark’s slave, accompanied the famous explorers of the Western United States as part of the Corps of Discovery as did Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman.
Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. York was a slave.
A plaque on the university’s monument states, “These statues stand as a visual reminder that three races contributed to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition — symbolic of the first integrated society in Oregon country.”
But no longer.
In an attempt to protest police brutality against Blacks, protestors threaten to suppress the truth about our nation’s history. In 2017, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described slavery as the nation’s birth defect and called the civil rights movement “the second founding of America.”
“When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing,” she said in a May 2017 interview.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘keep your history before you.’ And so I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at the names and recognize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.”
The U.S. Constitution counted her ancestors as three-fifths of a man, and her father had trouble registering to vote in Alabama in 1952.
“And then, in 2005, I stood in the Ben Franklin Room … I took an oath of office to that same Constitution, and it was administered by a Jewish woman Supreme Court justice. That’s the story of America.”
Our founding fathers were far from perfect. Many owned slaves. Others, like Samuel Adams, described at the time as a thug, opposed slavery. But it’s because of these brave men that protestors have the right to demonstrate in public streets.
Decades ago, while visiting my older sister in Atlanta, we drove north to Chattanooga, Tenn., and toured a museum. We saw mannequins in gray Confederate uniforms, unexploded cannonballs, green Confederate States of America money, and a diorama depicting famous battles of the War Between the States.
My younger sister leaned toward me to speak softly.
“Do you suppose they know they lost the war?” she asked.
You’d never know it from the South’s glorification of people who rebelled against the nation — to maintain slavery, assure states’ rights, and oppose federal taxation. But the fact remains: they were traitors to their country.
But while toppling statues of Confederate icons and founding fathers might appease protestors temporarily, it does nothing to eradicate social injustice. It’s better to keep the statues and install plaques that explain, or reinterpret, the past based on what we know today.
We can acknowledge the good our forebears did while admitting their faults — Washington owned people as slaves; Jefferson at 44 slept with a 14-year-old African-American girl, Sally Hemings, and fathered at least six of her children; Robert E. Lee oversaw a military academy and a college and eased reintegration of the South after the Civil War, but he also owned Black people as slaves and betrayed the United States of America.
Late last week Ben Crump, attorney for the family of George Floyd and other minority victims of police brutality, urged Americans to honor people who have benefited society while acknowledging their faults.
“I’m not sure pulling the statues down is the right thing if we now don’t get the lessons to understand how we can learn from those things, so we don’t repeat those mistakes of the past,” he told news anchor Neil Cavuto. “You know, they say history — if not studied — we will often repeat it.”
Instead of toppling statues, advocates for change should publicize previously sanitized history, such as the Greenwood race massacre of 1921, when mobs of white vigilantes aided by city officials unjustly attacked black residents in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla., burned their homes and businesses, and slaughtered up to 300 people. Even many Tulsa natives had never heard of it.
Or the slaughter of as many as 16,000 Native Americans in California during the two decades following the 1849 Gold Rush; 150 Black men in Colfax, La., in 1873; 60 to 300 Black people in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898; up to a hundred Black men in Atlanta in 1906; 200 Black men, women and children in Elaine, Ark., in 1919; and up to 150 Black people in Rosewood, Fla., in 1923.
We have a lot of “sanitized” history to reveal, pages of history books to fill with atrocities that accompany the good our forebears did.
Removing statues can be problematic.
First they tear down Confederate statues, then those of the founding fathers. Next Dr. Marcus Whitman, who established the Whitman Mission in 1836 and helped struggling Oregon Trail pioneers but disrupted Native Americans’ lives, resulting in diseases, armed conflicts and displacement.
I know people who would like to see The Sentinel removed from Washington Park in Centralia.
Where does it stop?
When I researched Pendleton, Ore.’s turn-of-the-century history for a client’s book, I was appalled by the blatant racism I read in news articles.
We aren’t where we want to be, but thank God we’re not where we used to be. If we sanitize history, we’ll never know how much progress those who fought for equal rights have made.
We must learn from history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Western Washington, may be reached at email@example.com.